September 25, 2018

Versace, Joseph and Chanukah

Perhaps the most famous historical article of clothing is Joseph’s multicolor “dreamcoat,” but it’s not the only one that appears in this week’s parsha, Vayeshev. The wife of Potiphar grabs onto the cloak of Joseph as he tries to elude her seduction, and near the end of the same Torah portion, we encounter the challenging story of Tamar, as she takes on the guise of a prostitute.

Begadim, or the clothes we wear, are a fundamental part of our religion. They have ramifications in so many different areas of Jewish law and ideology. 

When one goes through the heart of Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26), you almost are inundated by the lengthy discussion pertaining to the clothing of the High Priest. Why? Because on Yom Kippur, the High Priest must stand in the Holy of Holies, and it is imperative that God be on his mind and not himself, hence the clothing.

There is the notion of hikon, which posits that we pray before our Maker in clothing that is prepared and respectful — sometimes that takes the form of a special jacket, or simply being tucked in and neat. And when one is in mourning, one rips one’s clothing. 

Why do Jewish sources spend so much time discussing clothing?

The 18th century’s Vilna Gaon left us with a secret as to how to understand many of the more complex concepts in the Torah. He notes that if we want to truly understand a perplexing subject, we should locate the first time that idea is discussed and there will lie the key to understanding.

When is the first time we encounter clothing? Right at the beginning, in Genesis, with Adam and Eve. Vahayu shneihem arumim, hadam veishto, vahayu shenihem labasar achas (“Both of them were naked, man and his wife, and they were of one flesh”). Rashi comments that they were not embarrassed about this for they didn’t know the way of modest dress. 

But then comes Genesis 3:7: “And both their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked.” Sin created the knowledge that they were naked, and at that moment they knew they needed clothing, for they needed something, some symbol, to remind them that they were not God. Begadim, the clothes we wear, are the eternal reminder that reflect our awareness and loyalty to God.

Now we stand at the eve of Chanukah, a holiday that commemorates our victory over the Hellenistic ideology that attempted to make us forget God. They wanted to tear away our connection. One of the decrees against the Jewish religion was that they attempted to abolish the observance of the Sabbath. Why? It is a day when we come out in our splendorous clothing. The Sabbath is a constant reminder, through begadim, that God is greater than us. The Greeks tried to take that away.

We now also understand the sections pertaining to Joseph, whose brothers knew they could not destroy him physically. The only way they could hurt him was by talking away the Torah their father had taught him. How would they do that? By ripping his coat, which represents a connection to God. It was the very same coat given to Joseph by his father, who taught him all his Torah.

And we understand why the wife of Potiphar rips Joseph’s clothing as he is leaving. She’s trying to tell him, “Forget God. Live a little bit.” She’s trying to break his connection with God by attacking the clothing.

Another important example of clothing in Jewish literature beyond this week’s Torah portion occurs in the Book of Samuel. As Samuel is leaving after chastising him, King Saul, in a moment of defiance, pulls the cloak of Samuel and accidentally rips it. Samuel quickly turns to Saul and utters the chilling statement, “Now I know the Kingdom will no longer be yours.”

It makes perfect sense that when King Saul rips the cloak of Samuel, he no longer can be king, for a position of such power demands that one realize who stands above.  

On the other hand, at the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob turns to his children and gives them all blessings. Only one child is blessed with clothing, and, tellingly, it is Judah, the father of the future Kings of Israel!

The clothing we wear, like almost all seemingly mundane things that we do, brings with it such significance. And so, the simple act of putting on a nice button-down shirt can reflect something as powerful and important as our connection and respect for God.

Happy Chanukah!

RABBI SHLOMO EINHORN is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).